Some comments on devotions to the Saints
One of my Advent books this year is “Surprised by Hope” by N. T. Wright*. It is about the nature of the Christian hope after death (involving Resurrection rather than eternal disembodied bliss**) and how this affects how we live in the present. There’s a lot of food for thought in it: I found it well worth reading.
One thing, however, particularly drew my attention: his views on devotions to the Saints on pages 184-186. He comments that we should be very careful of the idea that the Saints function as friends at court: i.e. he says that every Christian has direct access to the Father through Christ and the Spirit, and therefore that asking someone else to ask for you is liable to negate that. He also opposes the practice, though fairly gently, on the grounds that it is not Scriptural.
Despite being the sort of Anglo-Catholic who quite happily sings the Angelus and says the Rosary, and finds these practices of considerable value, I feel that the distortion Wright mentions – that of talking to the Saints rather than to God – can be a real problem in my personal prayer – something that I need to be cautious to guard against and address. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am sometimes concerned that the extent of the (often rather illogical) opposition to much of what we do puts us off watching these particular practices for distortions. Part of good Christian practice is keeping an eye on whether or not our devotions or lifestyle choices are actually of a nature that would be justified by the theology of those devotions or lifestyle choices, not because of deliberate hypocrisy, but because of the risk of drifting away from our moorings. Christian life requires a sensible level of vigilance against taking the normal for granted rather than being careful to check that it is in fact right when considered in the light of the sources of the faith.
More widely, it does seem to me that East and West have a very different attitude to praying to the Saints. Western Church devotions, particularly to Mary, still retain a bit of an overtone of “God is really angry and he’s out to get you, but these people he likes might be able to persuade him to do otherwise”, which I think it probably would be fair to say is completely inconsistent with real Christian teaching. Eastern Church devotions (or so I’ve felt when I’ve encountered them) suppose God and the Saints are on the same side. The work and prayers of the Saints in heaven are part of that amazing element of God’s redeeming love in which he invites us (his people) as fully as possible into what he is doing – into working with him at his work of redemption.
I think, therefore, it is a question of seeing the “friend at court” situation rather differently: I think that if we are hanging around in the outer lobby asking someone else to go in and ask for us, we are getting it wrong (this is Wright’s version). But the baby prince or princess may go into the court to their Father quite freely, but still struggle to articulate a request or to know what and how to ask, because they are still a baby, and because being so, they are still learning. Of course God knows. Of course the Holy Spirit prays in and for us without our being entirely conscious of what’s going on. But we are a family, and it makes sense in such cases, that an older brother or sister should also come to our aid, and that we should ask them to. Parents are often pleased when one sibling asks a favour for another, because it indicates that the children love each other. To use a completely different image, I think it can also be a question of placing an overwhelming issue in a box marked “needs to be dealt with by a senior colleague”, one, moreover, who can be assumed to have plenty of time!
I would not (I wish I could say, “of course”!) set my devotional preferences and ideas over and above what it says in Scripture – in that, if devotion to the Saints is incompatible with Scripture (as Wright, I think, suggests), I would hold that it is wrong, and if I became convinced of that I would desist. The details of Scriptural interpretation are not my subject, so the belief that the devotion to Saints is consistent with scripture*** is something that I have chiefly received from those who taught me the faith. However, while I would struggle to give a complete justification, particularly as some very complex questions arise, I am reasonably satisfied that it is correct in as far as I have been able to go into it.
However, it does seem worth being careful to acknowledge and observe the doctrinal parameters (e.g. God alone is to be worshipped; Christ is the only Redeemer; the Saints mustn’t be put between us and God as if we had no access to him) in the context of both devotion to the Saints and other ceremonial practices.
*Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007. For a more detailed exposition of the same author on the nature of the Resurrection of Christ, see: N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.
**Which is reasonably supposed to be a stage on the way, but not the final destination.
***I suggest e.g. https://www.catholic.com/tract/praying-to-the-saints for an explanation of the scriptural foundation of the practice.